We all know tasty thyme, it’s one of the most popular herbs in the kitchen and garden, but there are so many species and cultivars it gets a little confusing! Let’s take a look at the difference between French thyme vs. English thyme, plus a quick look at German thyme too.
Comparing English Thyme vs. French Thyme
Thyme is a woody perennial herb in the Lamiaceae mint family. It’s native to the Mediterranean and its botanical name is Thymus vulgaris but it’s known as common thyme, English thyme and garden thyme.
Thymus vulgaris is the species plant, but there are subspecies including French thyme, German thyme, woolly thyme, and creeping thyme. In fact, there are over 350 types and there’s a good deal of confusion in plant centers and nurseries over which type is which!Interestingly, Vulgaris is Latin for “common” which makes its name common thyme. However, it’s called English because the Roman empire introduced it very early on.
|English Thyme||French Thyme|
|Species||Thymus vulgaris||Thymus vulgaris “French”|
|Size||6 to 12 inches||8 to 12 inches|
|Foliage||Small mid-green scented ovals on woody reddish stems||Small gray-green scented ovals on brown woody stems|
|Flowers||Tiny, pink, attractive to pollinators||Tiny, pink and attractive to pollinators|
|Growing Zones||4 and above||5 to 11|
|Taste||Deep intense thyme flavor||Sweet thyme flavor, less powerful than English thyme|
A History of Thyme
Thymus is ancient Greek and derived from the work thuein which means burn or sacrifice. The Ancient Greeks burnt thyme in their temples as an offering to the gods and they weren’t the only historical humans to take advantage of its rich scent.
The ancient Egyptians used it to embalm mummies, and the Romans believed its scent promoted courage in battle. This concept persisted into the Middle Ages where knights were given springs of thyme before they fought battles or jousted in competitions.
In modern medicine, thyme is researched for its medical properties including its antibacterial benefits. You might have even seen thyme oil listed on your mouthwash bottle as thymol.
The 4 Key Differences Between French Thyme and English Thyme
The main differences between French thyme and English thyme is their size and the appearance of their leaves. Although both reach the same maximum height, on average French thyme is slightly taller than English thyme. French thyme also has greyish-green foliage whereas English thyme has green leaves. The other main difference between them is their tolerance of cold, with one being slightly hardier than the other.
French Thyme vs. English Thyme: Size
English thyme and French thyme both reach around 12 inches in height and spread. However, French thyme is generally 8 to 12 inches tall, while English thyme is usually 6 to 12 inches. Flowers may appear an inch or two above the bushy foliage mat. They are not tall-growing herbs by any means.
French Thyme vs. English Thyme: Foliage
It can be difficult to tell French thyme and English thyme apart because they are both bushy and have small green leaves on a woody stem with a rich thyme scent, but there are differences if you look closely.
English thyme has a reddish stem and mid-green leaves whereas French thyme has a browner stem and soft gray-green foliage. It’s not much to go on, but if you’re able to taste and compare you’ll find French thyme is sweeter. After winter, French thyme foliage is usually frost-scorched, but English thyme may remain unscathed.
French Thyme vs. English Thyme: Flowers
English and French thyme have the same small pink flowers that emerge in May to July, but some gardeners say that French thyme flowers are more lavender pink. Both species grow flowers in tubular whorls and both are edible. They make very pretty (but still tasty) garnishes for soups, stews, and meats.
Thyme flowers are highly attractive to pollinators. Both French and English thyme will bring bees, butterflies and other beneficial pollinators to your garden. This makes compact thyme particularly useful near fruit and vegetable gardens that require cross-pollination.
French Thyme vs. English Thyme: Growing Zones
Thyme is native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean so it’s a sun worshipper that doesn’t cope well with frost. English thyme is hardier than French thyme which is often dubbed “Summer Thyme”. If it’s given plenty of drainage and planted in the sun then English thyme may survive a winter, but French thyme won’t. German thyme is the hardiest of the thyme subspecies. It’s called “Winter Thyme” as a result of its tough nature. As winter approaches you can choose to leave thyme outside or bring it indoors. Outside thyme will need trimming back and a cloche will help keep the worst of the frost and rain off.
Both English and French thyme are aromatic perennial herbs that look good in the garden and taste great in your food, but which is best?
English thyme is hardier, so it’s a tougher herb for cooler areas, it has a strong taste and is popular as a fgarden ornamental. However, French thyme is sweeter and is often a chef’s first choice for seasoning.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © pilialoha/Shutterstock.com
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Is thyme perennial or annual?
French thyme and English thyme are both perennials. Perennial means the plant grows larger and flowers each year. Annual plants germinate, flower and set seed all in one year. As thyme dies in frosty weather some cool-area gardeners grow thyme annually.
What is thyme used for?
All varieties of thyme are suitable for cooking and although English thyme has the strongest flavor, French thyme is used for authentic French dishes including Carpaccio de Thon à l’Huile de Farigoule and Risotto aux Agrumes. Many chefs prefer French thyme’s sweeter taste and use it to season meat, fish, and vegetables outside of France too.
Are English thyme and common thyme the same?
Yes, English thyme is common thyme Thymus Vulgaris. It’s also called Garden thyme.
It might feel strange that English thyme is used for a herb that’s not native to England, (thyme is from southern Europe and the Mediterranean), but historians think it’s because the Roman Empire took it there when they colonized Britain in 43 AD.
Thymus vulgaris is hardy enough to survive British winters, especially on the south coast. When British settlers moved to the States, they took thyme with them.
Which type of thyme is best for cooking?
Common thyme has the most flavor so it’s considered the best for cooking, but German thyme is good too and as we know, French thyme is preferable in authentic French cuisine.
How do you grow French and English thyme?
Thyme is easy to grow and both French vs English thyme need the same conditions to thrive. You can grow thyme from seed, cuttings, or buy a plant from the store and plant it outside in spring or summer.
The first step is to prepare the ground. With most plants, this means bulking up poor soil with mulch and removing stones, but not with thyme. Thyme likes poor soil and well-drained ground, so don’t add any manure. It makes thyme bolt upwards on long thin woody stems with barely any foliage to speak of.
Once you’ve identified a good area, check how much sun it gets. Thyme needs lots of warmth, just imagine you’re holidaying in the Mediterranean – that’s what thyme likes. However, in subtropical and tropical zones the midday sun is too harsh, so they will need a little shade.
Plant thyme in a sunny, well-drained spot and water it until it starts to put on new growth. After that, it can be left because thyme is drought-tolerant. When you water it, avoid dampening the foliage because this leads to fungal infections.
Will thyme grow in a container?
French and English thyme grow well in containers. They need a bit more water because sun and wind dry out roots from all sides in a pot. Use gritty compost and raise the pot on feet to allow excess water out.
Is thyme toxic to animals?
Thyme isn’t toxic to dogs, cats, or horses. It’s actually healthy for them, but it’s never a good idea to let pets chew garden plants. It’s best to try pet supplements with safe amounts of thyme to avoid accidental stomach upsets.
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.
- My Spicer, Available here: https://www.myspicer.com/the-history-of-thyme/
- Royal Horticultural Society, Available here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/herbs/thyme/grow-your-own
- Behind The French Menu, Available here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/herbs/thyme/grow-your-own